A Jungle in a Bottle, Anyone?


Terrarium by Sputnik Forest

Ever seen mosses and ferns inside a laboratory flask, and done a double take? What you would have been observing was a self-sustaining enclosed ecosystem – better known as terrariums.

In essence, terra means “land” in Latin, while the suffix -arium refers to a receptacle. Together, they denote “enclosed earth” – miniature ecosystems in sealed vessels.

Terrariums are unique indoor jungles that vary according to individual ingenuity. To ensure its survivability indoors, primitive plants such as ferns and mosses are often used since they require little to no sunlight. While some prefer to only accommodate green primitive vegetation, others incorporate animals such as lizards, tortoises and even arachnids into their vessels.

The basic components for a terrarium are hydrostones to indicate if the water level is sufficient; activated charcoal that acts like an antimicrobial to prevent plants from rotting; potting soil; sand; and rocks and pebbles for decoration.

Apart from the more common ones seen in cafes, other types of terrariums include, but are not limited to, paludariums comprising both land and water sections; tropical rainforest terrariums that simulate the actual environment of tropical rainforests in terms of temperature, lighting and humidity; desert terrariums equipped with a thick layer of sand or sandy soil; and steppe terrariums that provide a transition from desert to grassy savannah.

Terrarium by Sputnik Forest at Le Petit Four.

In Penang, businesses involved in terrarium-making are mostly concentrated within George Town; some prominent ones include Moonshop Gallery, Sputnik Forest Labs and Urban Green Cabin.

A pioneer in the industry, Moonshop Gallery is an established plant design laboratory specialising in tropical ornamental plants, with its main establishment located below Penang Bowl and pop-up stores at Mano Plus and Macallum Connoisseurs. Their signature products include Forest in The Bottle and Moon Forest, which explore the natural circulation of the rainforest ecosystem. Sputnik Forest, on the other hand, is a plantscaping studio founded in 2017, while Urban Green Cabin provides hands-on aquascaping and terrarium-making workshops.

Sputnik Forest Labs

Led by green aficionado Tan Wei Ming, Sputnik Forest uses botanical subjects to transform interior and exterior spaces into visual expressions of art. “Sputnik means ‘companion’ in Russian, and since it is the name of a series of Soviet satellites, directly translating the word ‘satellite’ from Mandarin would bring about the meaning ‘man-made star’. Thus, Sputnik Forest means ‘man-made forest that keeps you company’,” Tan explains. 

“Besides terrariums, we work on many different projects as well; we are diverse that way and it gives us an edge. Our first set of customers was actually cafes like Haven Harbour, and our most recent one is Kafka. We made tables, lamps, and we even had a customer who wanted a wedding ring placed within a terrarium box. It’s not limited to the size and it can be anything – that’s the idea,” says Tan, adding that the diversity in the projects they take on provides him the opportunity to exercise the imagination.

In essence, terra means “land” in Latin, while the suffix -arium refers to a receptacle. Together, they denote “enclosed earth” – miniature ecosystems in sealed vessels.

Often, one can find terrariums in cafes or on someone’s cluttered office table. Tan believes that terrariums and such spaces share a common notion – they aim to be self-sustaining systems. “The keyword here is balance. Whether it is a cafe, sundry shop or restaurant, you have to find balance within that system, like nature, to let it run by itself. You will know what it needs more or less, what’s suitable for that space and what’s not. Like in the office, you have to look for the right people to work with; it’s the same thing in terrarium-making – plants must be carefully selected for them to co-exist in a terrarium, otherwise they’ll kill one another.”

Urban Green Cabin

Another notable pioneer and expert in Penang’s terrarium industry is Urban Green Cabin. Located at Lebuh Victoria, it
recently underwent a rebranding from Aquacult Studio. Urban Green Cabin first began business five years ago when they ventured into aquascaping, an art form that involves the creation of an underwater landscape in an aquarium. A year or two later, they expanded into terrarium-making after noticing massive market potential for it; they continue to host terrarium workshops to this day. 

“Our terrarium-making workshops mainly cater to multinational companies for team-building purposes. However, we also host local businesses like the accounting firm Ernst and Young,” says Darryl Puah, one of the two co-founders of Urban Green Cabin; the other is Desmond Khoo. Puah adds that public workshops are conducted during the weekends, involving mostly participants who are in their late 20s and early 30s.

Preparing a terrarium on one’s own can be a hassle, especially since the materials are often sold in bulk, and only a small amount is needed at one time, which is why Urban Green Cabin describes their workshops as “terrarium buffets”. “Anything that you can put into the glass bottle, that’s yours; it’s easier this way,” Puah says.

“We also recently launched a new cafe below our office. To us, it’s an extension because we’ve been doing corporate workshops for the past two years and we were basically utilising cafes in the surrounding areas. And for the past year, we’ve stuck to only one type of workshop – terrarium workshop – due to our limited space. Now that we have our own cafe, we can relaunch some of our workshops and we can be more creative with our work. In fact, we have our own research lab doing tissue culture on Penang’s native rare plants.

Plantscaping project by Sputnik Forest and                                                 Terrarium making workshop by Urban Green Cabin at Gudang Cafe, Penang.
O Sculpture Studio Plants at Tzu-Chi Merits Society.                                     



A custom Chengal wood table with a Pachira tree project by Sputnik Forest.

Urban Green Cabin has many more plans in store for the future, one of which is to cultivate urban farming.

The Wardian Case

While most inventions are results of hard labour and profound skill, the precursor to terrariums was an accidental one. Originally known as Wardian cases, the concept of an enclosed ecosystem was a novel invention by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, an English doctor hailing from London. He made the surprising discovery in 1829 when he sealed a moth and some mould in a wide-mouth glass jar.

Astonishingly, a seedling fern and a sprout of grass bloomed within the bottle. It came to him as a surprise since he had been attempting to grow these very things in his garden, but have remained unsuccessful – thus deducing that it was the pollution from local factories that have been hostile to the plants, killing them. Free from outside contaminants, the plants in the jar continued to thrive for four years with no watering or intervention at all.

Wardian cases were generally used for transporting foreign plants from other parts of the world to Europe on long sea journeys in the nineteenth century, allowing them to receive much-needed sunlight while protecting them from sea spray. They also revolutionised trade, diversifying global production which led to drastic changes in the world economy. A case in point: Warden cases allowed India’s production of tea leaves

Wardian case.

to skyrocket when Robert Fortune, together with the East India Company, transported 13,000 plants from Shanghai to Assam, breaking China’s monopoly over tea leaves in the market.

In addition, English terrariums gained massive popularity during the Victorian Era when Shaw’s brainchild sparked “fern fever” – a condition also known as Pteridomania.1 His contraption allowed botanist George Loddiges to build the world’s largest hothouse in East London – which included a fern nursery – and to spread rumours that fern gathering showed intelligence and improved both virility and mental health, in hopes of attracting visitors to his hothouse.2Following that, the fascination evolved into a craze and fern motifs began appearing everywhere: dresses, tea sets, iron gates, chandeliers, fans, cards and even tombstones.3Fern-hunting was also a norm, and opulent ornamental miniature glasshouses used to contain ferns could be found in houses that could afford them.

As the decades passed, however, its popularity fell into decline. Presently, terrariums have made a bit of a comeback, but they have yet to reach the popularity they once enjoyed in the days of Ward. Today, terrariums are known rather for their aesthetic value, while their direct forerunner remains unknown to most.

The Creative Industries column aims to highlight current trends in the creative industry in Penang, and hopes to inspire creatives with ideas.

2Definition of hothouse: https://www.maximumyield.com/definition/2145/hothouse.

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